The Open Office Concept: Science Still Can’t Decide If It’s Good For Us

August 21, 2018, 10:40 AM UTC

The open office concept, it seems, is still open to debate.

A study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine this month found that workers in open offices are less stressed and more active than cubicle workers, perhaps because they move around more to interact with colleagues.

At the same time, past research, like that published by Harvard researchers in July, has found that people who work in open offices are less likely than cubicle dwellers to collaborate or interact with their colleagues.

Though the studies didn’t examine the exact same factors, their outcomes seem to send mixed messages, proving—if nothing else—that science has yet to give us a clear-cut verdict on open office plans.

The OEM study by University of Arizona researchers is based on 231 office workers in government buildings who wore movement and heart sensors for three days. Those leading the study found that workers in open offices were 32% more active than people with private offices and 20% more active than cubicle dwellers.

The Harvard researchers, meanwhile, recruited 52 workers from a Fortune 500 company and stripped cubicles from an entire floor of their building to make the workspace open. The workers wore Bluetooth-enabled badges with sensors and microphones for three weeks ahead of the redesign and for three weeks in the new open plan. Researchers were also given access to servers to monitor email and instant message activity.

The results were astounding: After the switch, participants spent 73% less time interacting face to face, while use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67% and 75%, respectively.

The open office plan was common in the U.S. before Herman Miller’s cubicles became the standard in the 1960s. The advent of the convertible partitions offered more privacy without the spatial and financial expense of individual offices. But starting in the 1990s, the open office came back into fashion and now an estimated 70% of U.S. offices have such layouts. Proponents say open designs let in more natural light, which improves employee well-being.

But the design also has its detractors.

“[O]pen plan office spaces, with gabbing colleagues and malfunctioning copy machines, can impede you from getting high-quality work done,” author Kabir Sehgal argued in a Fortune op-ed last year, titled, appropriately: “It’s Time to Bring Back the Office Cubicle.”